Kugluktuk’s mayor and MLA are insisting that something must be done to address public housing units with only a single exit due to risks to occupants’ safety.

“It is a very big concern,” Kugluktuk Mayor Simon Kuliktana said.

A fire broke out in a two-storey multiplex in the community earlier this month, and the units have only one door each.

“We’re lucky it didn’t spread fast. The reason why it was contained was because we had a very quick response from our fire department,” the mayor said. “I don’t know how the GN approved (the previous design) without the thought of safety – safety was not part of the plan.”

In the legislative assembly on June 9, Nunavut Housing Corporation (NHC) president Terry Audla said the NHC has varied designs over the past several years in an effort to reduce costs. Moving to a single door per unit shaved off $20,000 per household, or $100,000 for a five-plex, he said. “But the feedback we got was that the second door is required and is needed for safety concerns … so we went back to the drawing board and switched it back to the original two-door design.”

Calvin Pedersen, MLA for Kugluktuk, pressed Housing Minister Margaret Nakashuk to ensure greater safety while questioning her in the legislative assembly on June 9.

“One improvement that I believe can and should be looked at right away is the need for multiplex units to have more than one exit,” he said. “From what I observed yesterday (June 8), this feature appears to be very lacking.”

Nakashuk replied, “We are concerned about the one exit, but when you’re building a multiplex, it’s cheaper.”

The minister said the NHC relies on fire-retardant wood and other materials to help keep house fires from getting out of control.

“For example, if a bedroom was on fire, they’re using materials that would contain the fire to one area,” she said.

Kuliktana said the Government of Nunavut cannot just ignore the risk.

“It is a hazard… I would like to see the housing corp. rectify the issue,” he said. “There’s got to be some solution. At least to make it an option for people living on the second floor, some kind of escape route so they can have peace of mind.”

Nunavut News asked the NHC how many homes have been built with a single exit door, but the agency did not provide an answer. However, 240 public housing units and 30 staff housing units have been constructed with a second exit since 2018, when the practice of using only a single exit door stopped, although the NHC stated that this is “by no means an exhaustive account” of dual exit residences. The housing corporation didn’t respond to questions of how much it would cost to install a second door in existing units and whether such measures are being considered.

The housing corporation stated that all homes are designed so that one window can be opened in most rooms of the house, including the living room, kitchen and bedrooms. By code, one window must be operable in each bedroom and the housing corporation said its design complies with this requirement.

‘Not willing to take chances’

In a subsequent statement to Nunavut News on June 18, the housing minister said: “I stand behind my efforts to address the fire safety concerns presented by my colleague. The numerous features I highlighted in the legislative assembly reflect NHC’s commitment to the safety of its tenants. All housing units constructed through the NHC construction program are built in accordance with strict safety standards established by the National Building Code,” Nakashuk stated. “NHC is not willing to take chances with people’s safety to save money, and as such, surpasses the design and requirements set out in the National Building Code. My colleagues suggested NHC designs were too elaborate and that we could save money by altering our designs, but NHC wants to ensure the units we build are built with fire separations to slow the spread of fire between units. Every new housing construction project is reviewed and approved by the Office of the Chief Building Official before a building permit is issued.”

Former Nunavut fire marshal Tony Noakes said limiting occupants to one exit could result in deaths during a fire.

“Especially if all other access areas (such as windows) are high enough to cause serious injuries or death if used as an exit by occupants fleeing a fire,” Noakes stated, adding that such homes should have sprinkler systems, heat detectors, alarms, extinguishers, building materials that limit fire spread, fire safety plans and related education for tenants.

In Kugaaruk, Jamal Immingark lives in a recently constructed five-plex with a back door, but there are no stairs and he estimates that there’s a drop of close to five metres.

“These new units are not safe in case of a fire,” he said.

Noakes said leaping from that height in an emergency could result in injuries or even be fatal.

In terms of rear-door exits, some units have a small landing and railing that functions as a balcony. “Beyond that, if the site is not built up, it is NHC’s responsibility to get it to the right topography. In some cases that means paying for gravel to bring it up to usable standards and including staircases that add extra costs,” stated the NHC.

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